Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Bass and Vocals Like Never Before

Jen Shyu and Mark Dresser’s Synastry album came out this past August on the enterprising Pi Records label, and it’s a stealth contender for best jazz album of 2011. Both artists have worked the outer margins of jazz under the lights, Shyu with Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, Dresser with innumerable others, most famously Anthony Braxton (who’s got a new opera in the can – watch this space). Shyu’s claim to fame is that she mingles her languages (along with her native English, she speaks many others from both Europe and Asia) into a style of vocalese where she’ll drop actual words or phrases in if she sees fit. And when she does this, she sings in what appears to be perfect accent, a difficult task that literally stretches her ability to turn a phrase and is one of the reasons why she is such a distinctive vocalist. Few other singers in jazz, or for that matter any other style of music, are as unselfconsciously graceful as Jen Shyu, whether dipping gently for a throaty blue note or flying high, clear and unadorned, employing timbres that seldom occur in western music. Dresser’s fondness for utilizing the entire sonic spectrum that can be conjured from a bass makes him a perfect complement to the vocals here, providing some striking textural contrasts, but also some unexpectedly fascinating harmonies further up the scale: the two make a good team. Unsurprisingly, on this album, they share composition credits on every track, and a commitment to melody that’s unusual for artists who can be at home as far outside as these two can go. And as much as Shyu’s style gravitates toward the bracing and otherworldly, they cover a surprising expanse of emotional terrain.

The opening track, Slope a Dope, sets the tone for most of what’s to come: Dresser works a methodically propulsive, deceptively simple, in this case circular groove as Shyu casually vocalises a warmly bossa-flavored, buoyant melody over it. A simple, modal theme that Dresser stakes out incisively gives Shyu the chance to color the following track much more brightly than its title, Quietness of Memory – Recovery, would suggest. The third cut, Mauger has Shyu reaching for a sometimes whispery insistence as Dresser alternates between a hypnotic bounce and a tersely exploratory attack before they join forces and go off animatedly in a more tropical direction.

The title track is the most traditionally free piece here. Shyu leans toward a pensive torchiness while Dresser plays it very spacious, minimalist and tongue-in-cheek, taking out his bow between beats for textures that range from ghostly to abrasive. Floods, Flame, Blades takes on a slinkily anthemic, remotely Brazilian feel, rather than a direct evocation of any of the title’s menaces, while Mattress on a Stick is a funny song, Shyu airing out her upper register and stream-of-consciousness over Dresser’s overtone-drenched, rhythmic bowed chords. By contrast, Chant for Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, a tribute to the Korean-American novelist/performance artist who was murdered at age 30, is understatedly apprehensive. It’s pretty rubato for a chant, and the most overtly avant piece here. Dresser shadows her rhythmically as Shyu works outward and around a central octave motif a la Amy X Neuburg.

The rest of the album reaches back for bits and pieces of tradition as it follows an individualistic tangent. Lunation is just plain hilarious – Shyu gets going with some very clever “-ation” rhymes before a double entendre that will have you keeling over. Kind of Nine has hints of Bollywood over a staggered groove and Shyu’s trademark mishmash of phonemes, while Telemotion alludes to a swaying blues ambience but deliberately never gets past first base (almost said “first bass”…this is the kind of album that’ll do that to you). The duo close on a wary note with Night Thoughts, driven by Dresser’s dark chords. Imagine what Joni Mitchell and Charles Mingus might have been able to pull off had he lived, and you get a sense of what Shyu and Dresser have done here.

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November 30, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Whitney James – The Nature of Love

West Coast jazz singer Whitney James’ debut cd is auspicious because she sings nonstandard repertoire, she’s got a great band behind her, she embraces the role of band member rather than just having the other musicians back her up, and most importantly, she knows that less is more. Her voice recalls early 70s singers like Marilyn McCoo and Valerie Simpson, who made their careers in soul music using jazz chops. Yet James also bears some resemblance, if not timbre-wise, to another very popular singer, namely Karrin Allyson. James doesn’t go for Allyson’s fox-in-the-icehouse delivery, but like Allyson, she doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve. When she’s at the top of her game she draws you in with her clear, vibratoless, sometimes subtly cajoling, sometimes distantly rueful style. That explains why she gets away with what she does here when she covers material that’s been done before by jazz sirens with bigger voices and bigger names. Alongsider her, pianist Joshua Wolff, bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Jon Wikan work the corners for subtleties, with Ingrid Jensen adding characteristically terse, rich color, on trumpet and flugelhorn on five of the tracks.

James puts her own subtle (some might say tender) stamp on Tenderly, rather than trying to mimic the iconic Sarah Vaughan version – Jensen is there right off the bat with a smoky/steamy trumpet intro. Whisper Not was a hit for both Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O’Day; here, James and the bass play a carefree game of tag until the swing kicks in. Then Jensen takes a sailing, breezily bluesy solo into a suspenseful spy movie-style bass/drums vamp out of which James bursts unexpectedly with a minor arpeggio. When you think about it, all the great jazz singers basically do horn lines, and that’s exactly what she’s up to here and elsewhere. Although on the intricate, expansive version of the obscure A Timeless Place (The Peacocks), she sings what’s essentially a righthand piano melody against Wolff’s expansiveness and gracefully terse, almost rubato accents by the rest of the band.

Long Ago and Far Away (Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin) was written for a man’s voice; the interpretation here is closer to Billie Holiday, James so comfortable over the bass and drums early on that when Wolff good-naturedly jumps in, the effect is startling. Abbey Lincoln’s My Love Is You hints at flying off the tarmac, suspensefully, with a neat bass solo; The Very Thought of You counterintuitively gets a dreamy ballad arrangement with romantic muted trumpet. Irving Berlin’s How Deep Is the Ocean gets a psychedelically percussive intro before it goes straight up into the air, as high and far as James and the band can take it. Then Wolff and James take it back down again with what might be the strongest song here, the vividly world-weary obscurity Be Anything. The only misstep on the album is In April, and not because the band does a bad job with Bill Evans’ tune, but because Roger Schore’s lyric has not aged well and at this point in history comes across as rather sexist. James recorded the album in Brooklyn, so a return trip shouldn’t be out of the question: watch this space.

March 4, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment